In early October 2019 David Cook and I visited Peter Doig:Paintings at Michael Werner, and Cy Twombly: Sculpture at Gagosian, both in London. Afterwards, we discussed the shows by email. The following is the result of several weeks of electronic toing and froing...part two

Peter Doig
“Untitled (Wheelchair)”, 2019
Oil on linen
102 1/2 x 78 3/4 inches
260 x 200 cm

Richard:

I don’t know – could it be that the sunshine has burned off the early mist to reveal a new kind of daylight in the paintings? The colours are not bolder or brighter, but there are bigger areas of a single colour than I remember in the earlier works. The compositions seem starker, more striking and consequently more memorable. To me these paintings are like crystallisations of the promise of the earlier works – as if his vision is clearing and he no longer feels the need for so much decoration.

Let’s talk about Untitled (Wheelchair), which exists in two versions in this exhibition – one much smaller than the other.

David:

I am really struggling with the space and geometry of Untitled (Wheelchair), which seems perverse and incoherent, particularly the larger version. Yes, there is a certain warmth to it with the colours and the setting, and the gesture of the man pushing the chair across (I am hoping not just into) the road.

I have problems though. The lack of shadows flattens the space yet the perspective is so forced, and the clash is very uncomfortable. My eye just can’t make sense of the wall with the railing.  The road does not feel flat, it seems like some giant wizard’s hat on top of the guy in the wheelchair. The wheels of the chair seem drawn with a kind of geometric care that is jarring because it is not echoed elsewhere. The shape play with the roadsign and the pole dead centre of the top of the canvas feels ungainly. The hills and trees have paint handled in a more doigy kind of way, suggestive poetic but they sit uneasily on the corner, penned in behind the red railing of the forced perspective wall.

Milton Avery
Strollers by Sea
Oil on Canvas
28 x 36 inches
1936

The flattening approach can work, but here it feels too clunky and subverted by extraneous naturalistic detail that destroys the effect. (Thinking of those wheels and the railing here). For contrast, this Milton Avery picture from 1936 (!). It has light, atmosphere and character but does not sacrifice its central abstract ideas to figurative description. Or at least not so much – it is a tightrope. The handling of the paint is very flat too, but there is a design to the depth and movement of it, which sells the shapes as a pure composition. Then the rather lumpy and odd drawing of the figures takes on life and believability too.

Richard:

As always I like the “irritations” a lot – for me the sum of the things you describe as problems adds up to an image brimful of life and questions. There’s a tenderness to the image that is piqued by the jarring juxtapositions of for example that geometric wheel with the sumptuousness of the standing figure’s coat and the ambiguous expression on the face of the man in the wheelchair. Yes, I love the echo of Doig’s earlier paintings in the hills and trees, but there’s a melancholy sweetness to the way he undercuts it with the pseudo-Expressionist handling of the road at the foot of the picture. The image is deceptive – it looks like a simple design, but it’s teeming with little tensions.

It makes me laugh how opposite our views of this painting are! I like it so much it has replaced the image that springs to mind whenever I hear Doig’s name.

Going back to your earlier point about it looking like any old Expressionist painter’s work – this is a question we’ve not asked before – is that a bad thing?

To be continued…

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Part one of this conversation can be found here.

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